Life as a Sport Pilot

These days I’m flying as a “private pilot exercising sport pilot privileges”.

To get a private pilot certificate, one is required to pass a medical exam every 2-3 years, depending on age. A while back I had some heart problems that resulted in two cardiac stents. Of course the FAA panicked, convinced I was going to have a heart attack and crash into the White House. Ironically, before I had the stents I was more likely to have a heart attack, yet I was flying legally. Now that the problem is resolved the FAA gets concerned. Go figure.

I waited the requisite six months then submitted all my medical records and got my medical certificate approved. Then in May 2011 my cardiologist made the mistake of mentioning “sleep study” on his office notes. He wanted me to be tested for sleep apnea.

Let’s talk about sleep apnea. People with this problem stop breathing in the middle of the night. As a result, their oxygen levels drop and they wake up with bad headaches. They also don’t get all the sleep they need, so they tend to fall asleep while watching TV, driving, or — as you might’ve guessed — flying. I had none of these symptoms. I never wake up gagging. I never fall asleep while watching a movie or TV. I never fall asleep in church. I never fall asleep while driving or flying. But because it was mentioned in the doctor’s office notes, the FAA was going to panic. So I didn’t bother re-testing for my medical certificate.

Instead, I did a sleep study. The minimum number of events per hour that qualifies as “mild sleep apnea” is five. That is, you can stop breathing every fifteen minutes and nobody worries. But if you stop breathing every twelve minutes, you can’t fly an airplane. My score was 11.4. Higher than five, but still considered “mild”.

So now I use a CPAP (actually a BiPAP) machine when I sleep. It is a mask connected to an air pump that increases the air pressure over my nose and mouth. The “Bi” in BiPAP means it is bi-level. It increases the air pressure a lot when I breath in, less when I breath out. The machine actually counts my apnea events. I’m down to less than two per hour.

Symptomatically there is no difference. I still get about the same amount of sleep every night. I still stay awake while watching TV and movies. I still stay awake while driving and flying. I still have no headaches when I wake up. So several thousand dollars later I’m no more safe to fly than I was before, but the FAA is happy. I haven’t yet submitted my medical data for re-certification, but I will.

In the meantime, I can still fly but with fewer privileges. The FAA lets me drop from “private pilot” to “sport pilot” privileges, since I don’t have a medical certificate. So I can only fly in specially designated “light sport airplanes” that weigh no more than 1320 lbs and go no faster than 120 kts. I can’t fly at night or in the clouds, even though I’m instrument rated. I can’t fly above 10,000 feet even though I have a high-altitude endorsement and 300 hours flying pressurized aircraft. I can’t fly multi-engine airplanes even though I have a multi-engine rating.

This works out just fine. My current airplane is a Jabiru J250-SP, which is a light sport airplane I own with my dad. While I’ve flown my twin-engine Baron 58P from Boston to Seattle and San Diego to Atlanta at altitudes up to about 23,000 feet, I’ve also flown the Jabiru to those places and more. It just takes longer and you have to go around, rather than over, the mountains.

One of these days I’ll get my records together and re-apply for my medical certificate. In the meantime, assuming I don’t fall asleep or have a heart attack, I’ll be flying low and slow and enjoying the view.

4 thoughts on “Life as a Sport Pilot”

  1. Dear Craig,
    I, too, have medical problems. I don’t know whether to go light sport or motor glider. The Jabiru 250 seems like a wonderful choice, but the engine seems to be a question. Your description of two major engine problems is disquieting. What was the cause of the second engine failure? And has Jaabiru done any fixes to alleviate their problem? Thank you for the excellent reporting.
    Joe Amendt

    1. Joe, from everything I’ve been able to find, our experience with the Jabiru engine is unusual. There are thousands of these engines in the air, and they are no more problematic than any other engine.

      We don’t know the absolute cause of the engine failure but in retrospect there were signs that we should’ve followed up on. They just didn’t seem unusual at the time.

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